Searching for the Limits of Ethics

By Casey Bukro

Some media people find it impossible to forgive Brian Williams, saying he tainted journalism through false reports.

A cascade of shame enveloped the former NBC anchor, demoted and vilified after saying repeatedly that he was aboard a military helicopter that was forced down over Iraq by enemy fire. Turns out that happened to another military helicopter, not the one he was riding.

Williams’ career began unraveling as other reports were called into question.

From a strictly ethical viewpoint, how should Williams be judged? He admitted he was mistaken about the helicopter incident and apologized.

Ethically, are there limits to forgiveness? Is it best to forgive and forget? Is he forever tainted, or is he allowed to get beyond it and redeem himself?

These questions were posed to AdviceLine’s team of ethicists.

Nancy Matchett, who teaches ethics at the University of Northern Colorado, answered this way:

“Philosophers understand ethics as ongoing reflection about ‘how one should live.’ In the professional context, that means ongoing reflection about the principles that should guide one’s work and how they apply to the concrete choices one faces every day. Ethics doesn’t exactly have a beginning or end.

“And, with respect to the Williams affair, we can evaluate his choices since the incident, and the choices of the network, as well as the original mistake.”

I asked Matchett if that suggests we should judge Williams and the aftermath by what he does from now on?

“Sure, that’s part of it,” said Matchett. “But I guess what I’m also trying to emphasize is that the fact that any particular bit of conduct that was good, bad, etc., is never ‘the whole story about Williams’ ethics.’ There is no whole story, except perhaps after a person is dead, because characters are never wholly fixed.

“What he does from now on should be judged in light of the fact that we know he is at least careless and at worst inclined to stretch the truth for the sake of a story.”

I told Matchett that appears to raise the issue of redemption.

“I don’t really have anything to say about redemption,” said Matchett. “Whether another person, or ‘the profession,’ forgives Williams doesn’t change his act from wrong to right. It acknowledges that his character isn’t all bad and that the mistake was in some sense ‘understandable’ given the various pressures he was under. And just to be crystal clear, note that ‘understandable’ is not the same as ‘justifiable.’ Or as we say in my business, an explanation is not the same as an excuse.

“As for people finding it ‘impossible to forgive,’ that’s a psychological issue or question, not the ethically central one. The ethically central issue is whether forgiveness is morally appropriate, whether people should do it, which is a little different from whether they can. … If it’s not appropriate, then folks are doing the right thing by refusing to forgive.

“But in general, I think any network would be foolish to leave him as an anchor on their main show. He has harmed his own and the network’s credibility. Even if the network execs were convinced that it was a forgivable mistake and his journalistic integrity could be counted on in the future, the average viewer surely doesn’t know Williams well enough to decide whether to trust him again.”

David A. Craig, another AdviceLine ethicist, who teaches ethics at the University of Oklahoma, sees it a different way:

“It troubles me that Williams seems to deflect responsibility for his untruths by saying he did not intend them. Journalists, especially those in roles as high profile as his, have a responsibility for every word that comes out of their mouths in a formal journalistic setting.

“If this were a single brief slipup in language, that would be different. But he was untruthful more than once about his experience in Iraq. Every viewer now has reason to question his trustfulness in the future. By failing to fully take responsibility for his words, he gives his audience ongoing reason to doubt.”

Reason to doubt Williams first emerged when military publication Stars and Stripes challenged his account of being aboard the helicopter that was forced down over Iraq.

NBC suspended Williams for six months without pay, then stripped him of his duties as anchor of NBC Nightly News.

As Matchett points out, we don’t know “the whole story” about Williams yet. Already, he is the subject of jokes and spoofs by the likes of Harry Shearer.

Forgiveness happens on two levels, personal and professional.

Journalists are notoriously soft on each other, and hard on everyone else. Journalists don’t like to criticize or censure other journalists. So, personally, they are likely to forgive Williams by finding that morally appropriate, as Matchett put it. They will write about ethical transgressions, but that’s not the same as taking a personal stand.

Professionally, it’s hard to forgive an act that weakens public trust in the integrity of journalism, which rests on a foundation of truth. The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics begins with this tenet: “Seek truth and report it.”

Falsehoods damage the profession, and cannot be tolerated.

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